Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake, theory and practice
If you must store strawberries for more than a couple of hours, spread them out on a paper-towel lined plate so mold and bruises can’t travel.
The Theory Part
“ Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” (Samuel Butler, at some point in the late 16th century.*)
“Doubtless the cooks who have gone before could have devised a better strawberry dessert, but doubtless they never did.” ( me, at this point in 2008, after trying many vintage recipes before settling on the shortcake that follows).
A Few Shortcake Rules:
Old fashioned strawberry shortcake is always made on a biscuit base.
The best way to make it is as often as possible, and
the best way to eat it is the old fashioned way, front and center for supper.
Della Lutes gives the flavor of the thing in The Country Kitchen, a memoir of life in rural Michigan in the 1870’s that was published ( by Little, Brown and Company) in 1936
“ My mother made strawberry shortcake in a small dripping pan and of a very rich biscuit dough…When this was baked to flaky perfection it was turned onto a platter and split in two. The top half was laid aside and the bottom part lavishly spread with butter. Over this the berries (already crushed in a blue and white porcelain bowl) were thickly poured. Then the top half was laid over this, fulsomely buttered, while the remainder of the berries completely canopied the whole. The juice ran off and made a crimson lake in which the shortcake rested. It was then set in the oven to ‘ripen’ for a few minutes. A pitcher of cream on the table acted as accompaniment for those who wanted it.
When we had shortcake we had but little else, nor needed more…”
Although I distantly remember shortcake for supper from my own youth in Pennsylvania, until I read the Lutes book I always assumed it was a New England thing. So I asked food historian Sandy Oliver, an expert in 19th Century New England foodways.
She wasn’t sure. There is some evidence, she said, citing an 18th century diary, but not enough to go making pronouncements. Nevertheless. The diarist was from Newburyport and Sandy, who is from Cornwall, Connecticut, may be living proof. “ I know that my mother considered it supper. My father, who was raised in Nyack, did not,” she said.
My current favorite is from Lowney’s Cook Book ( 1907), by Maria Willett Howard.
1907 STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons lard
1 cup milk
Mix and sift the dry ingredients. Add butter and lard and chop until thoroughly blended. Add milk. When thoroughly mixed, divide in halves; put each half into a round, buttered cake tin. Flour hand and pat to fit the tin. Bake ten to twelve minutes in hot oven. Separate the upper portions from the lower portions of each cake with a fork – never cut with a knife. Spread with butter, fill with filling, and arrange in layers, with filling between.
Hull, cut in pieces, and sweeten two boxes of strawberries. Let them stand several hours. Arrange between layers of shortcake and garnish top with whole strawberries and beaten and sweetened cream.
Raspberry, Blackberry and Pineapple may be made in a similar way.
Department of further explanation:
* If you can’t get good lard (the supermarket stuff is awful), use all butter – and start looking around for lard so you’ll be ready when it’s apple pie season.
* mixing thoroughly makes tough cake. Just be sure all the dry ingredients are dampened.
* The hot oven is about 425 degrees. The cake tins would have been shallower than modern cake pans. Use 8 inch tart pans and if all you have are fluted ones don’t worry about the cakes coming out neatly. Just cut around the rim as necessary to loosen; with all the strawberries and cream nobody will notice.
* Nobody will notice if the layers are less than perfect either, just piece the bits together as needed. There may be more bits than anything else if you try to use a fork; and in my opinion the slight improvement in texture isn’t worth the aggravation. It’s hard enough to keep them reasonably whole when you use a serrated knife.
* Spreading the layers with butter might seem a bit over the top. It is not.
* Two boxes of strawberries is 2 quarts and you need them all for the filling; if you want to garnish with whole berries you’ll need another pint.
* Can’t find the original date for “Doubtless God etc.”. The only reason we know these deathless – and endlessly quoted – words is because the original quoter was Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler (1653), probably the world’s most famous book about fishing. I base my approximation on the fact that Butler died in 1618, at the age of 85.